It was in around 600 BC that a man called Bian He discovered a large piece of jade in the hills of the kingdom of Chu. Excited by this discovery he rushed down to present it to the ruler, unfortunately for Bian He the King failed to recognize this plain uncut rock as being jade and ordered that Bian He have his legs cut off. Only years later was the jade recognized for what it was. Some eight hundred years after its discovery the First Emperor had that jade made into his Imperial Seal.
Although the largest pieces of Jade are those found in the mountains, it is often easier to find and work jade which has been washed into the rivers and streams. Historically the collection of this river jade was done by teams of men who would walk in a line along the river and, when a piece was found, a gong was sounded and the line stopped while details of the find were recorded.
What is Jade?
Jade is an umbrella term which can apply to either jadeite or nephrite (also known as Xinjiang Hotan Jade) - it was not until the last two hundred years that it was even realised that they were different minerals. Jadeite is generally more valuable as it is rarer and it can be polished to a finer shine, the colour of jadeite also tends to be less opaque. Jadeite is mainly found in Burma and only really began to be used in China in the last five or six hundred years. Historically one of the most prized colours is 'mutton fat' jade or white jade - which remains popular in China to this day, whereas in the West it is the emerald greens which often attract the highest prices. It is unusual to find a piece of jade that is uniformly one colour and they almost invariably contain blemishes and veins.
History of Jade
The first evidence for jade objects in China comes from tombs dating back around 8,000 years. These are simple designs and usually in the form of jade discs - often with a gap which is thought to have allowed them to be worn as earrings.
As jade is such a hard material it is very difficult to shape and to work. Iron tools are not hard enough to cut jade and so it would have to be ground into shape, probably using quartz as a cutting agent. Around 3,000 years ago there was a leap forward in jadework as the development of better tools and metals allowed for more sophisticated designs and carvings to be done. Perhaps the apogee of jadeworking came in the Qing Dynasty with Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795)- who wrote some 800 essays or poems about jade. It was in his reign that the dramatic 'Emperor Yu Tames the Flood' was produced, this is carved from a single block and weighs a staggering five tonnes.
Since the earliest times Jade seems to have have had a special place in Chinese culture. It is thought to have been a link between man and the gods and still continues to carry connotations of royalty, wisdom and longevity.
Telling Real from Fake
Identifying real jade from fake jade can be increasingly difficult. The most common fake jade is made from glass. As it is hard to shape or grind then glass often lacks the fine detail or relief of real jade and may also contain tiny air bubbles. Jade also has a distinctive greasy look that is difficult to fake and the mix of colours that you also find in jade is difficult to mimic in glass. Unlike some other fake materials jade shows little or no fluorescence under an ultraviolet light. Perhaps the most reliable test it to measure the specific gravity of the piece, although this is usually a little impractical to do in most street markets. It is also now common for jade to be 'enhanced' - this can be through staining, dyeing or chemical bleaches.